As we continue the Mount Rushmore series by Last Word on Sports by looking at the greatest players and coaches in college football history, today’s focus is on the Houston Cougars.
The beginnings of Cougar football trace back to 1941, where two students Johnny Goyen, sports editor of the school newspaper, and sophomore class president Jack Valenti, the same man who became the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, petitioned the school to start a football team. Five years later, the team became a reality and began playing in the Lone Star Conference.
The Cougars program really took off in the 1950’s while in the Missouri Valley Conference and made its first bowl game in 1952, beating Dayton 26-21 in the Salad Bowl (yes that was the real name of the game). The football team really hit its stride under Coach Bill Yeoman in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Yeoman coached for 24 years before retiring in 1986 with a 168-108-8 record, giving him the most wins in school history and 50th most all time.
Jack Pardee took over from Yeoman and installed the Run and Shoot offense, making 1989 one of the best years in school history. However, the excitement was short lived as the NCAA came calling and investigated the program concerning numerous violations that happened during the end of the Yeoman era. The Cougars were put on five years probation by the NCAA. Hampered by sanctions and scholarship limitations,Houston had only three winning seasons from 1991-2004. Over the last ten years Houston has had a resurgence after hiring up and coming assistant coaches to lead the program. Under Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin and now Tom Herman the Cougars rank 20th in the nation in wins over the last ten seasons with 88, including a 13-1 season and Sugar Bowl win over Florida State in 2015.
The Houston program has had a number of great players and you could make the case for an entire Mount Rushmore of just quarterbacks starting with the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner.
Andre Ware (QB- 1987-1989)
Growing up the Galveston, Texas native wanted to play quarterback forTexas but when was told he would be play defense, he went to Houston and had one of the best careers in NCAA history.
In his three seasons with the Cougars, Ware set records that still remain 27 years later, capped off by the 1989 campaign many call the greatest in history. Under Pardee’s Run and Shoot offense, Ware threw for 4,699 yards, 46 touchdowns and broke 27 NCAA records. The 1989, the Cougars team was the first in college football history to have a 4,000 yard passer, a 1,000 yard rusher and a 1,000 yard receiver.
Ware capped off his season by becoming the first African-American quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy beating Indiana’s Anthony Thompson by 70 votes.
Ware skipped his senior season and was drafted in the first round and seventh overall pick by the Detroit Lions. Ware played five years in the NFL but did not have much success. He then went to the CFL and led the Toronto Argonauts to the Grey Cup Championship in 1997.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004, and now works as a football analyst for ESPN.
Case Keenum (QB- 2006-2011)
Keenum came to Houston as only a two-star player by most of the recruiting services, but under Kevin Sumlin, Keenum really shined in the Cougars up tempo passing offense. In 2008, Keenum led the Cougars to their first bowl win in 28 years, beating Air Force 34-28 in the Armed Forces Bowl.
The following season, Keenum threw for over 5,000 yards and 44 touchdowns, leading the Cougars to a 10-4 record. Three games into the 2010 season, Keenum tore his ACL against UCLA and was lost for the season. He was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and took full advantage throwing for 5,671 yards, 48 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He capped off his career with a win over Penn State 30-14 in the TicketCity Bowl. Keenum threw for 532 yards and three touchdowns. He left as the NCAA leader in passing yards with 19,217 with 155 touchdowns through the air and another 23 on the ground.
Keenum went undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft eventually signing as a free agent with the hometown Houston Texans. He played three years with them and is now on the Los Angeles Rams roster.
Wilson Whitley (DT- 1972-1976)
Whitley was a four year starter under Yeoman and was the winner of the Lombardi Award as the nation’s top lineman in 1976. During that season, Whitley helped lead the Cougars to a 10-2 record and were co-champions of the Southwest Conference.
They capped off the season by winning against previously unbeaten Maryland 30-21 in the 1977 Cotton Bowl.
Whitley was named Southwest Conference defensive player of the decade for the 1970’s despite only playing one season in the league. The Cougars had been an independent after leaving the Missouri Valley Conference in 1960.
Whitley was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals as the eighth pick in the first round of the 1977 NFL Draft. He played six seasons for the Bengals helping lead them to Super Bowl XVI, where they lost to the San Francisco 49ers. Whitley played one more season with the hometown Houston Oilers before retiring.
He died of a heart attack in 1992 at age 37 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
Kevin Kolb (QB- 2003-2006)
Kolb originally committed to play for Oklahoma State, but rescinded his pledge when the Cougars hired his former high school coach Art Briles as head coach. Kolb became the first quarterback in school history to start as a true freshmen, leading the team to a 42-35 win over Mississippi State in his first game. He finished his first year with 3,121 yards 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions. He led Houston to their first bowl game in seven years losing to Hawaii 54-48 in the Hawaii Bowl.
Kolb’s senior year turned out to be his signature season throwing for 3,809 yards and 30 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He was a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Award and was named Conference USA Player of the Year. He led the Cougars to a third bowl game in four years, where they lost to South Carolina 44-36 in the Liberty Bowl. He finished his career with 12,964 yards, ranking him 12th all-time and 85 touchdowns.
Kolb was taken in the second round as the 36th overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles. He played six years in the NFL before retiring in 2014 due to health issues relating to concussions.
There are two more players (and one more quarterback) you could make a case for on the Mount Rushmore.
David Klingler (QB 1988-1991)
Klingler had the unenviable task of having to succeed Ware but had one of the best seasons in NCAA history in 1990 with 5,140 yards and 54 touchdowns as a junior. Klingler finished third in the 1990 Heisman race behind Ty Detmer and Raghib Ismail. His NCAA records include 11 touchdown passes in a game and 716 yards passing in a game.
Klingler’s senior season was a bit of a disappointment but he was still taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals with the sixth pick. He played five years in the NFL with the Bengals and Oakland Raiders.
JD Kimmel (DT 1949-1952)
Only six years into the program, Kimmel became the first All-American for the Cougars. During his senior season he led the team to an 8-2 record and their first Missouri Valley Championship and first ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
After serving in the Army, Kimmel played four years in the NFL with Washington and Green Bay.